Three dots wait on their shared horizon. Unless she’s breaking the world record for longest text message, he knows she decided what to say two minutes ago and is only waiting to hit Send. She’s enjoying a last second of silence, which is her favorite method of control. He has his methods too, such as texting her when she was likely to be with her boyfriend, to give her less wiggle room.
He started slow, with what are you doing this weekend? and she replied hanging out before, he surmises, she knew how much trouble she was in. He sent the follow-up immediately: Come to San Diego and get drunk until sunrise, first writing then deleting, with me. With them that’s always implied, he had thought, until her next text: Why SD? That made it easy to reply: I’m on my way there. Now she’s hemmed in and doesn’t have much time, he knows she can’t hide the conversation from her boyfriend much longer. This next text will be the terminal one.
And he’s made no effort to give her an easy out, because they both know she has to say yes anyway. She has to say yes, because his wife just died. And when someone’s wife just died, and they show up on the opposite side of the country, your side, you must do all you can to say yes. Her three dots fall back into his phone, replaced by a blue bubble.
OK, I’ll come tomorrow.
* * *
After the funeral he drove to Key West. He told no one and turned off his phone. Their dog slept most of the way. Three days later he posted a picture of a mangrove tree on Facebook, with no comment. It had been his only communication to the outside world. All the comments wanted to know where he was and if he was ok. He posted a picture of the Southernmost Point in the Continental United States.
He intended to stay in the Keys for a while, maybe live as far off the grid as allowed, maybe go around the islands you can only reach by boat. But a funny thing happens in the tropics: people are in love. Everywhere he looked they held hands, whispered nothings, fought at restaurants. He was so new at this, he did not even know what he needed to escape.
Two days later in Marfa he decided to turn on his phone. Only texts, for now. He said he was OK. He dropped off the dog with a zen friend in Taos. He had grown to resent it for surviving her, and he could not bear hating such a wonderful beast. He sat at his friend’s kitchen table for a while, but neither of them could talk. His friend said, “You sure you don’t need something to keep you around?” He said he would go to California, and he kept his word.
Now he’s just across the border in Joshua Tree. They look like little children with stubby waving arms. He gets a frown on his face that feels like stone, and his eyes cry brown mud. He is not under a cloud or down in a hole, he is in a different world, where light sulks around like an endangered animal, poisoned by chemicals in the food chain. Its unripened eggs glow dimly like distant digital clocks, waiting for warmth.
At night the facts fall asleep before he does, and he thinks about fucking his wife. He thinks of all the places they fucked, all the surfaces: couches, beds, floors, car seats, picnic blankets. If he laid them all together like puzzle pieces, what kind of land would their fucking be? He walks it end to end, watching replays. He’s horny to an unprecedented degree but still smart enough to not try anything. He can’t decide if thinking about his wife’s face or not thinking about it will preserve its exact dimensions longer in his memory. He compromises, remembers her in glances.
One thing he did not expect was the lack of appetite. So many of their best days revolved around a meal. He can’t eat food that he can’t share. Eventually he settles on diet nutrition shakes and drinks enough to nearly hallucinate. He keeps hearing the Morrissey whistle from How Soon Is Now? and it starts to give him vertigo.
What do you do with a man who can’t eat, can’t masturbate, and can’t see any of the common indicators of romantic love without needing to smash them into insignificance with thoughts of an early death? You move him. You move him ceaselessly, to one bar after another, around town, to the next town, to the highway pointed across the country. Then some of the bumps are swallowed by speed, and the oncoming cliffs seem inevitable.
* * *
They meet on a corner in the Gaslamp District, the only part of San Diego he knows, and they both have the same first thought, “These people have no interest in understanding anything. Let’s get out of here.” So they get a taxi and find a bar that looks shaped from the wreckage of a much nicer bar that was blown from its foundations in Hawaii and drifted, with some wear, across thousands of miles of ocean until a particularly high tide lodged it on the shores of Ocean Beach. They walk in and it’s immediately apparent they will be the only people there who don’t live in the bar.
“You want to go somewhere else?” she asks.
They stand at the end of the counter. No one offers them anything. Eventually standing is awkward, so they sit. She touches his hand.
“Sorry,” she says.
Thank You is still awkward for him.
“I’m really sorry,” she tries again. It feels like acting class.
“Could we get a drink?” he says to the bartender, who is unimpressed, possibly worse. She sees how close they are to disaster already, how high the stakes are. She reels the bartender back in, using her two best dimples and every faint freckle.
“Darling, what my dour, sour friend means is that we’d be ever so glad if you could make us two margaritas, with salt and as much tequila as the state of California permits you to allocate in a single rocks glass.” In her actress-voice she could pass for a flapper, or at least the 21st century’s idea of one.
The bartender decides to tolerate him in order to give her another chance. The two drinks are “$17.50.” She looks at him and he counts out $17.50 exactly, pushes that towards the bartender, then takes out a $20 and leaves it next to the rest, causing new margaritas to spontaneously generate. With her personality and his generosity, they walk in awkward steps towards intoxication.
They try to reminisce about high school, but they’re not quite drunk enough to drift that far from random. So he’s talking about the time he met Scottie Pippen as a kid, and his grandfather made him go ask for an autograph. It was the most embarrassing moment of his childhood. When he ended up in the same Times Square sports bar as Scottie, years later, he apologized to him. Scottie smiled, said, “happens all the time.”
The bartender drops a glass, swears. He says, “happens all the time.” The bartender shoots them a look. She apologizes. They might not get another drink, at this rate.
When the bartender is done sweeping, he asks her, “Do you like him?”
“He is a bartender. That always helps.”
“You should flirt with him.”
“Mmmm, no thanks.”
He takes a sip of his beer. The can has lime and a dash of hot sauce in it. Then he lifts one of her fingers off the table, brings his head close to study it.
“I’d like to watch you flirt with him.”
She never agrees, just turns and begins with a question about whether her eyes are even. The bartender looks, says one is higher, sees both are serious. Eventually they are talking about relationships.
“This girl I have,” the bartender says, “she won’t break up with her ex.”
“But you said he’s her ex?” She’s careful.
“Yeah.” A sigh. “They aren’t together anymore, but they’re not broken up.”
“So can’t she date you too?”
“She could,” the bartender agrees, “but I won’t.”
“You want them to break up first.”
“It only seems fair.”
“It’s hard. I’m going to break up with my boyfriend too,” she says, as part of the act, to make the bartender feel better, yet every bone in her body filigrees with hairline cracks as the weight of this truth is distributed. The spell breaks, but luckily they sit in the one spot where it’s not awkward to drink right through it, the bartender joining them, downing a measure for each he pours for them.
“Did you find anything on your road trip?” she asks.
“I almost got to a lot of places. They all had one problem, though. They’re full of people.”
“Couples, really. Wherever you go, two more people will soon come together. There was no way away from that.”
She nods and excuses herself.
He slept with his wife a few times before they officially started dating. He’s thinking of one time in particular where they were both drunk. She had started to feel his gravity. She wanted to orbit him closer and closer, but that night it had unsettled her. He pulled her in anyway, like a comet bent by the sun. He knows that she slept with him that night only because he wanted to. Years later, it was still his favorite time with her, and he never stops feeling guilty about it. She let him use her, all of her, because they were falling in love. It wasn’t even great sex: she just threw her legs in the air and he got on top. But he filled her up like fire fills a room.
The bartender drops off a check. He doesn’t look at it, just leaves five $20’s from his wallet. She’s back, but she doesn’t sit down. It’s 2am and everyone has left but a man nodding in the corner, whose departure is being arranged for him. The bartender takes the money, and she asks, “Do you know where we can keep drinking?”
None of them smile, but all three want to. They wait outside for the staff to finish closing. When the bartender shows up he is in jeans and a hoodie, just a guy. People drain out of the street as they walk.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s ok,” he replies, “happens all the time.”
* * *
There’s a local Park Service building adjacent to the beach, but it’s been shuttered by federal budget cuts. The front door is locked. There’s a ladder to the roof, ringed with metal halos to guide you straight down if you fall. Each rung is an entirely different challenge from the last one. He insists she go first so he’ll cushion her. On the roof is a door back down to the second floor. They come to a cleaned-out storage room, bare walls, a few tables. The patron drinking closest to the door is a de facto bouncer. “These two?” he says, only looks at her. The bartender nods. A broken desk hold shots, they’re handed two each. The rum climbs down his throat, lets go of the rungs to fall into his lungs.
They are stocky men, no serious surfers, mostly hispanic. Spanish is the dominant language, but no one has a problem with English. This gives them a little bubble to watch from. Someone brought a few tiki torches from a closed-down bar, they should not be lit inside but they are. The ceilings are high for whatever was kept in here, now they buttress an unnecessary palace. Two walls are tagged with their moniker: “Our After.” He does not think anyone here could have come up with that pun. He sees the night, now, as a two-line summary in a TV Guide:
Man is drinking in an illegal after-hours bar in San Diego, on a wild road trip after his wife dies. His old high school crush is there with him.
She’s not the only woman here, but at this point in the night, she’s the only girl. They watch him when they talk to her, and he smiles back at misheard openings. His tinnitus roars when he’s drunk.
It doesn’t matter how it comes up. There he is, phone in his hand, wondering what the number is. He said it occurred to him to think, she took the dog out, they’ve been gone for a while. He hears the voice, straining its authority. He hears the words, and then the color white. He has those weird hyperlogical conclusions that come before you fall asleep, such as, “I thought they made a bird for everything, but there’s none with a call like this.” The police come, bring the dog. He asks for a few minutes alone, then he bolts the door and tells them to leave. He sits down in his bathtub in his clothes, their dog staring over the edge. His dog, now. They find him there, after a while, after the news spreads (he still doesn’t know how) and someone drives to the city and talks to the landlord and takes her key and comes in the house and he’s still in the tub, though there’s evidence he got out to feed the dog. He tells the patrons that he does not remember a single word he said up to and including most of the funeral.
She listens to his story and does not feel sad, once. Instead, raw fluids flush through her. There are no thoughts, it is an unadorned need. She could never describe that feeling, it would be like describing a rainbow without using its colors. But she knows it well enough to check her hands to see if they’re shaking. Her mouth goes dry and red grows in her cheeks and chest, and when he tells them about improvising the eulogy her capillaries ache with fluoride.
The patrons form a tight circle, some cross legged, some staring into that high ceiling. They pledge to drink with him for as long as he can. He takes this pledge seriously, something offered only when it is needed, and promises to take full advantage. The brand-name bottles are empty. Now there are homemade infusions in mislabeled jugs, aqua-vitae in mason jars, and ironic purple drank in Sprite bottles. One of the patrons is a tattoo artist, asks him if he wants one gratis, for his wife. He politely refuses. From everyone else’s point of view it’s the ultimate tribute; from his it pales in comparison to what’s already written there.
He keeps them going until 7:48 am, which is the time of morning his wife died. Then he sits down and says, we’ll be ok for tonight, right? And they know he means just him and her, so they file up the stairs and out the door, one by one, and the last one twists the lock as he leaves. She smiles, only as a guide, so that he might reciprocate.
The gesture ignites him. He’s slurring and screaming. If only she had said yes to him, back in that hammock in Baltimore hemmed in by hemp and stars, he would have taken her back, he would be married to her, and know all of her bright beautiful lies by heart, instead of all his terrible truths. He cannot believe he is being so loud, so wild — he thinks he must be imagining his fury, so does nothing to control himself. But he’s in her face, spitting accusations onto her, ready to throttle her. She loved him, he knew, he loves her, they both know, and it’s criminal how little she’s done about it. Could she not have acknowledged it once, in all those years they were friends? They could be happy.
“I am happy,” she hisses, and wants to give him more, but she is so angry that her eyes fill with red and she thinks she’s going to pass out. Finally, panting in her face, he sees he’s gone too far. To find himself now, he will have to wander without aid. The crumbs have been eaten, the strings severed, the X’s he scratched out in the sand blown away.
“It’s too late,” he says, and slumps against the cinders. She curls up with her head on his leg only after she sees that there is nothing else soft in the room to sleep on.
* * *
Last night, he did not notice the windows, but now the room is sick with persimmon light. He wakes her by saying, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
When they step outside, the beach is noon-bright and almost crowded. The clean desert smell of the sand reminds him of his 20’s. There’s a couple holding hands in front of them as they walk. The guy is average-looking, with a lazy beard, and the girl has on very short cut-offs. They’re holding hands and he is sure they’re going somewhere to fuck. Fucking is something everyone has to understand. They have to decide, here is how fucking will work in my life. And how it will work for whomever I share it with. For a moment his need unfocuses, becomes a want. But in the next moment he knows he’ll have to start all over again.
A man stops them. He has an iguana tattooed on his neck, “RIP Cornelius.” The man wants to sell them weed. He buys a joint because it feels like they have to, the show isn’t over yet. So far, she has said nothing all morning. He fights the urge to take her hand.
The people in the hotel lobby look drowned in air-conditioning. She stops and pays for another night. They crowd into an elevator with a family on vacation. He realizes why he stays so sad: because the other option is screaming terror. It’s there, on either side of him: a little child, reaching for his hand…
Up in her room they inspect the slim joint. He doesn’t smoke pot much because it always starts out fine but leads to compulsive horrific thoughts like dogs being tortured and his grandparents in hell. Her roommate never gets her anything but coke.
He lights it with matches they got from the front desk, though this is ostensibly a non-smoking hotel. He offers her the first drag. She takes it reluctantly. This is the last yes she has in her. He coughs, her mouth burns. They wait, then realize they’re both a little lost in the waiting. He looks outside and expects it to be night, then gets very worried he doesn’t know what day it is.
“Everything silent is made of ghosts,” he says. Immediately, he cannot remember if he said it or just thought it. The hotel room is silent, and seems like it always has been. Why would anyone speak here? He asks her to look at him, silently, but her eyes wander the floor.
Maybe it’s because of the quiet they can hear the passage of time, or at least pay close attention to it. Though they still can’t look at each other, they each stare inside their heads at their images of one another, and see they are still in the same room. They still have something to learn from one another.
The phone rings, twice. The red light comes on, indicating a message. They reunite over the unspoken desire to never check it.
He starts talking. He’s not talking to her, exactly, but he wants her to hear. He lays out his vision of the country he’d seen, the country made of all the places he loved his wife. Now he sees it’s not just the places they fucked, but the places they kissed, the places they held hands, the places they looked at each other. Looking up, the skies were old skies, the ones that hung over them when they were far away but thinking of each other. Then, he begins to describe it in more detail, here is the dim sum restaurant where they played footsie on their second date, here is the tree he tried unsuccessfully to help her climb, there is the hotel bed in Carson City where they fucked while the car was being fixed.
“And the floor, and the shower,” she says, without precedent.
He smiles, but shakes his head. “Not the shower.”
“No,” still shaking his head, “it wasn’t her thing.”
She stands up, walks over to him, holds out her hand.
J. Gone is a writer from Central Florida. He lives here.